Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #35: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

I've always had mixed emotions about this song, not least of which because I used to dislike it in my earlier days as a Dylan fan. Back then, the lyrics felt treacly and clumsy (he rhymed "table" three straight times? Jesus!) and the emotional impact Dylan was shooting for sailed right over my head. These days, though, I've warmed to the song and now consider it one of the best of his acoustic era, just like most other Dylan fans do...with one major exception, which I'll get to in a second. I've grown to love that triplicate rhyme, which now feels to me like a hammer rhythmically striking a nail right on the head, and that marvelous chorus with its brilliant final line of "now ain't the time for your tears", and the way that Dylan paints a picture with his pen (like Norman Mailer) to put that horrible incident and resulting trial right smack in the middle of your cerebral cortex. Any number of people have analyzed this song and concluded that it is a high water mark in Dylan's career, and I will not argue against that.

But my mixed emotions now come from the fact that I know a little more about the circumstances of the song, and about the infamous William Zantzinger and his life before and after the writing of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll". The song's still a masterpiece, with language that curls and bends like the Mississippi River and a powerful command of words that builds to that final verse and the punch to the gut that is "William Zanzinger/with a six month sentence". But the man himself, held up as the scourge of all welcoming and tolerant mankind, has undoubtedly been slandered, even just a little, and that makes things a little tougher to get my head around.

Clinton Heylin, who has given me a mental workout as I search for synonyms for "curmudgeon", has reserved some particularly barbed words for Dylan regarding this song, stating that Dylan "verges on the libelous" by his portrayal of Zantzinger in the song. Whether or not that's entirely true, there are still elements of the song that make Zantzinger out to be some sort of demonic figure, and there are very few people actually like that in real life. His crime may not have been racially fueled - it's hard to believe it isn't, but work with me here - but he has now been branded as such for the rest of his life, and that is a label that is incredibly hard to shake. Just ask Mark Fuhrman. There's also the factor of Zantzinger's drunkenness, which we all know tends to put people in a different frame of mind, and while one could argue that that simply brought out his latent racism, one could also argue that it also brought out an entirely different man.

We don't know very much about Zantzinger, outside of his wealth and subsequent infamy, the crime he committed, and his crimes after the manslaughter trial. His wife, in one of the funniest and craziest possible defenses of him, said that "nobody treats his niggers as well as Billy does around here" (I mean, think about that!). But we don't really know the man, or how he lived his life prior to hitting Hattie Carroll with that toy cane, or what he's like around his house, or with his drinking buddies, or with his family. We only have a portrait from Dylan, a man who couldn't possibly have known any of those things either, and that isn't really sufficient. There's Zantzinger the real person, and Zantzinger the Dylan-created straw man, and nobody seems to be able to tell the difference anymore.

I'm reminded of the great baseball player Ty Cobb, who played during the turn of the 20th century and is regarded as one of the 5 best hitters to ever play the game. Cobb came from Georgia, and has more or less been branded a racist his whole life, often with good reason. He has also, according to some, gone out of his way to be helpful to black people, and went on public record as a supporter of integration in baseball. That begs the question of what made Cobb feel a certain way towards black people to begin with, one that obviously had to eat at him and make him question himself from time to time. He did, after all, grow up in a state where virulent racism has been rampant for centuries, in an impoverished area that had to foster even more hatred for blacks, and was basically surrounded with the idea that blacks were an inferior race. I don't know about you, but that seems to be hard to shake.

Look, everybody knows that you're not born a racist. Racism has to be injected into you, more often than not at a young age, and fostered in your mind until you're old enough that the feeling just stays there with only the barest hint of rhyme or reason. And it's not just your parents or family that can do that; society plays just as large a role in helping that hatred flower (Dylan makes that sort of point in "Only A Pawn In Their Game"; he does it better here, IMO). Obviously that can make hatred easy to explain away, and I don't want to do that; grown men and women are responsible for their actions and for the way that they feel. Still, it seems irresponsible to simply say "hey, you're a racist, and that's all your fault". It rarely ever is.

Part of what makes "Hattie Carroll" such an undeniable masterpiece is that it's so effective in making Zantzinger the straw man; putting the metaphorical devil's horns on his head. In those four poetic verses, you get the crime, the motive (or lack thereof), the sympathy, and the gutwrenching aftermath, and you realize how well Dylan managed to take centuries of suffering and conflate all that pain, anger, and oppression into a story of a murder in a Baltimore hotel. The other part of it, though, is the black and white (so to speak) painting of a hero and a villain, necessary because it makes things so much easier that way. Hattie Carroll might not have been a hero in the ancient sense, but she is definitely a sympathetic figure, and it makes painting Zantzinger as the pure villain all the easier. Perhaps it's a necessary evil, but it still doesn't quite feel right, like Dylan cut a corner somewhere along the way.

I'm certain I'm not telling you anything new or blowing your mind, maaaaan; I don't suppose I could, when it comes to a song like this one. There are chapters in books dedicated to this song, for the love of Pete - like trying to summarize King Lear, my effort will only be diminished by "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"'s majesty. All the same, it's worthwhile rolling these issues and thoughts over in my mind, even as I give the song yet another listen and marvel at how those sentences string together and create a whole story from start to finish as well as any screenplay about Hattie Carroll's death ever could. Songs like this one might not tell us a lot about Zantzinger (other than what we already believe), but they can tell us a lot about the man who wrote the song, and - I'm already cringing writing this, but it's true - about ourselves.

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15 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is nothing in the song that says Hattie Carroll is black, or even hints at it.

Surely it says more about racism that we supposed enlighted ones all assume she is? I think it comes from the lines

"Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children"

Tony said...

Well, that seems a bit disingenuous to throw that out there, since the song is so clearly based on a story that made national headlines and everybody who knew anything about the story also knew that Hattie Carroll was, in fact, a black woman. I mean, Dylan didn't just pick the names at random. And yes, no mention of her race is made in the song, but Dylan so clearly took the tack of making the lyrics a tale of injustice that you could only really surmise that either he was speaking of a racial crime or a class crime, both of which are inexcusable.

But yes, you're right, and there might be some latent racial conclusions being jumped to by immediately suggesting Hattie Carroll, based on the song's lyrics, is a black woman. The thing is that many (not all, of course) stereotypes became stereotypes for a reason; you really find it odd that many people performing menial tasks, especially during the early 1960s, are minorities? Unless you're already from a different country, you're living in a different America than I am if you think that.

And we're not all enlightened over here. Just my readers. :D

Anonymous said...

Well for the record I'm not American, however I'm not surprised that she is black, and that's not my point anyway.

I first listened to this album a few years ago, when I was about 15, and I - like, apparently, everyone else - just immediately assumed that Hattie was black. The fact that this turned out to be historically correct is pretty much beside the point, because the character in the song could easily have been a poor white woman. I'm unsure whether Dylan deliberately avoided explicitly mentioning her race, but I think that's a possibility.

The main problem I have with the song is it's simply speaking out it's arse. The case wasn't about a big shot beating a woman to death in a racial incident and getting let off for it, it was about a stupid young drunk who went around hitting a lot of people with a stick and, unluckily for him, one of these people happened to have a heart condition and promptly died. I've always wondered why Dylan chose this incident to immortalise when there are countless amounts of greater injustices to choose from.

Anonymous said...

at the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, i must now say, in my humble (not really so humble) opinion, that it is my belief that 99.9% of dylan fans have, for 45 years, missed the point of this brilliant song entirely....i do contend that the song is not really about racism, or zantzinger, or hattie, or legal injustice.....

the song is about dylan's own anger and impatience with "The Left" and it's tendency to over-intellectualize real tragedy and real suffering....let's go back to 1963 and imagine dylan hearing about this story for the first time....all the liberals furious at the short 6-month sentence...i can just see bob thinking "gee, would everybody be happier if he was sentenced to 60 years?...aren't they all missing the point that the real tragedy was the day-to-day life for this second-class citizen and the cold-hearted world these folks lived in?".....

i contend that the final, powerful line "now is the time for your tears", is said with 100% complete sarcasm, as if to say "you misguided compassionless liberals...you cry at the judge's sentence (which after all, hattie will never even hear), but you failed to cry (in all the prior verses) when this poor woman was living this terribly difficult second-class life, and when all these other hardships and unfair practices were occuring"

to me, the brilliance of the song is similar to a great magic trick, in that dylan knows, as he writes the song itself, that liberals will hear it and remember it as "that great song about that poor woman, and the guy who only got 6 months in jail"....but that's the trick, that's the misdirection....when actually, the very point dylan's making, that the legal sentence is essentially inconsequential, and that the true "crime", the true "sorrow", is the day-to-day life, the minute-by-minute existence, of life for the underclass (any underclass) in an unjust society, once again goes unnoticed.

well, i'm just getting started but i'll shut up now...sure would welcome any comments though....zimfreud

Tony said...

Anonymous, I think that Dylan wanted to use (that verb doesn't sound right, but I'm struggling to think of a better one) Hattie Carroll in a metaphorical sense the same way he used Medgar Evers in "Only A Pawn In Their Game", taking a specific incident and using it to speak in a broader sense. Yes, he knew that people would read about the story, but he also counted on them hearing his way of telling it and feeling moral outrage over a social injustice. Hell, if William Zantzinger had had a chance to make his own powerful acoustic guitar song telling his side of the story, maybe more people would think of it as just a terrible misunderstanding. You can say the song is speaking out its ass with the benefit of hindsight, and you may even be right. I don't know where else to go with this discussion, honestly.

Zimfreud, that's a very interesting analysis of the song, and certainly one I'd never heard before. My only problems with it are that 1) the song is shuffled in with a whole pack of earnest, eyes-wide-open protest songs, so either Dylan has a REALLY puckish sense of humor to slide in a song basically giving the middle finger to his audience or he's playing it totally straight, and 2) "you who philosophize disgrace/And criticize all fears" doesn't really sound like a 1960s liberal, does it? To me, that sounds like a conservative who can't understand why other people think/act/worry differently from us and readily brush aside injustice with a curt word. I find it difficult to believe the Dylan that fervently wanted to change things in 1963 would be having a laugh.

heynow said...

sir,

ok, this and 'only a pawn' makes it 2 reviews of angry,pointyafinga,protesty dylan songs in which you seem to have an issue them not being more
literal or something, i mean, why the noting of lack of biographical material of zantzinger? these are songs, good man! do you read shaw or shakespeare and decry the lack of detail recipes for yorkshire pudding? do you read automotive repair manuals in search of sonnets?

regards,
-jim

Tony said...

jim, it took a few seconds for me to figure out what exactly it is you're objecting to, then I realized it's the entire fourth paragraph you take issue with, and I feel I must defend myself. I wasn't saying that Dylan should have attempted to find out where William Zantzinger went to primary school, or what his favorite color is, or whether or not he's a fan of bocce. What I was trying to say is that Dylan's tune, which understandably focused only on the crime and not the man (well, other than making him look like a jackass), a picture of Zantzinger has been created that may not be entirely true. I mean, that was going to happen anyway, since Dylan was writing the song to serve a particular end, but it still seems a little, well, unseemly. Que sera sera.

Anonymous said...

hi, it's zimfreud...

point by point...

well then, as for dylan giving his audience the middle finger, i think he's done that dozens of times...sometimes his whole album has been one big middle finger (another side, harding, skyline, slow train, etc.)....and i, for one, have always believed dylan placed much emphasis on the order of songs for each album....so, hattie comes right near the end of a "protest album", followed only by "farewell"...farewell to what?...perhaps protest....we are, after all, close now in time to his writing "my back pages"....

as for point 2....please don't misunderstand...i was in no way suggesting that this song was "a joke", i think it's a very serious and even a very angry song, but that the anger is not at zantzinger or the courts, etc. but rather at the "knee-jerk" liberal response of outrage at the 6-month sentence rather than at the real heart of the suffering/pain.

and thanks for bringing up the phrase "you who philosophize disgrace"...you're right, it doesn't sound like a 60's liberal if by that you mean LATTER 60's, but i'd contend that that's because dylan (& others) were responsible for the sea-change of liberalism from the more stodgey, early 60's, tom-paine-award-dinner liberals, from whom dylan was always running away from....(theo bikel is not abbie hoffman)....the phrase itself has always struck me as most jarring..."disgrace" and "fears" are felt, to philosophize/criticize them is to intellectualize them, not to feel them....y'see, he could've written "you who are ignorant and racist"....or you who are unjust and cruel...but no, he wrote a deliberately awkward & ambiguous phrase, which the Left would assume was about the Right, but which really was about the Left itself....that, my friends, is the very trick itself.

the bottom line of my long rant here, and of the song itself, is: what difference in the world does it make that zantzinger's sentence was short?...so what if he got a 60-year sentence? or a 6-minute sentence?....this "outrage" listeners feel at the end of the song, though well-intentioned, is really, if you'll forgive me, rather silly and detached from the very real pain/suffering of the day-to-day life of ms. carroll....

i don't mean to offend anybody, i tend to ramble on & on, so please tell me to shut up if i'm bending your ear, but i can't help but think that if bob dylan is out there reading this, he's thinking "hey, somebody finally got it".

Justin said...

You know, Pretty Boy Floyd probably didn't leave thousand dollar bills under farmers' napkins either.

I too have always seen it the same way you do, Zimfreud -- that the true human tragedy has been missed, and the real time for your tears should be about her death (which is also lonesome because it gets obfuscated in the overall picture of anger at WZ's punishment) moreso than the six-month sentence. "Philosophizing disgrace" sounds to me like folk revival poseurs who would value songs/artists for their "authenticity" and fetishize the squalor that the performers on Harry Simon's anthology of American folk music were living in.


Christopher Ricks' writings on Hattie Carroll are really insightful. The chapter in his (overall hit & miss, IMO) book is tremendous, but I thought he had also previously written an article about the performance itself that I read on the world wide internet too. Can't find the latter but did find the former.

Bootlebarth said...

A contribution to a thread at the Mudcat Cafe website said that William Zantzinger died on January 3rd.

Dylan's song and 1963 recording (and the early b&w video that can be seen on youtube) are remarkable. You only have to see the attempted French translation to be convinced how good Dylan was even then.

Be that as it may, it amazes me that in segregated Maryland 45 years ago Zantzinger became the first white man ever charged with murdering a black woman. On that night in Baltimore he was obviously a drunk, racist, aggressive, swaggering lout. But it is equally clear that he had no intention to kill or seriously hurt Hattie Carroll. His verbal and physical assaults on her were disgraceful and loathsome but not murderous.

Hattie Carroll died mainly because of her poor health. Racist insults and taps to the shoulder and head with a cane don't kill a normal person. Instead of railing at the lightness of a six-month sentence, someone who reflects on the mood of the time might marvel that the three Maryland judges found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter and sent him to prison.

'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' is a wonderful song, but I wish Hattie Carroll's skull had been thicker, her blood pressure lower and her arteries less congested. If Zantzinger had been stopped by fellow revellers, who must bear some of the blame for allowing his boorish, violent and ultimately tragic actions to continue that night in Baltimore, Hattie Carroll might have enjoyed a normal ration of days.

Dylan's song remains an anthem to anyone who hates violent, oppressive, remorseless bullies and sympathises with the downtrodden.

Rob said...

Well, sorry but i for one cannot see this too-clever-by-half interpretation re. the 6-month sentence not being the real problem. I read that last verse and see the tension building in both lyrics and the singer's voice, culminating in:

"And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence."

To me that is clear good old fashioned sarcasm, emphasized by Dylan's slight pause before announcing the 6 month sentence. Here's a justice system, he is saying, that claims it is so blind to social standing, puffs itself up with unassailable impartiality and then ... hands out a piddling 6-month sentence. Now is the time for your tears because it is not so much the monstrosity of the act at which you should weep but the monstrosity of the (in)justice system.

Anonymous said...

hi, it's zimfreud...just an afterthought, for those who may have "missed it" re: the ashtrays....as a kid i saw an old black&white movie (can't recall the name) in which a rich guy, at his dining table, yells at his servant for dumping the ashtray at table level, thereby possibly spoiling the food with ash flakes in the air....he teaches the servant to first lower the ashtray near the ground, & then dump it, so the ash falls to the floor, not near the food...possibly bob saw this same flick...anyway, it's a brilliant line with the obvious "double meaning", as hattie's whole existence is also on "a whole other level"...

p.s.- to rob...thanks for the response, i guess we just disagree...guess we'll both have to wait for one day when bob himself will chime in on the subject.

Paul said...

Zimfreud's interpretation is interesting, but I don't think that was Dylan's intention here.

The way I hear it, the philosophizers were, in fact, crying at the time of her death until Dylan told them to stop ("Take the rag away from your face").

The point is that until the sentencing, there is still--technically speaking--a chance for justice to be done. Bob is just setting up the disappointment to be revealed in final verse. This earnest Dylan is actually a part of "The Left" that zimfreud believes Dylan is lampooning.

This is the finger-pointing Dylan that eventually gave way in My Back Pages.

Anonymous said...

p.s.....in percy's song...the judge has also killed someone while driving....that's why he "jerked forward" & throws bob out....zimfreud

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, yes another interesting song analysis. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/649/The-Lonesome-Death-of-Hattie-Carroll and listen to every version of every song.